How the South Indian idli became so widely available despite odds…

Superb photo essay by Vikram Doctor in ET.

He points how innovations in idli making helped especially in making batter readily available helped idlis ride over chapatis:

In a culinary clash between chapattis and idlis, the south Indian staple would not seem stand a chance. Chapattis are ubiquitous wherever wheat is eaten in India. They require just atta and water and can be made in minutes. Making idlis is much more laborious, with all that heavy-duty grinding, overnight fermenting and then careful steaming of the batter to achieve an adequately airy result. Like all fermented foods, it can go wrong over-ferment into sourness under-ferment into stodginess.

….This unlikely victory came from turning the problem with idlis, the batter-making process, into an advantage. It required a huge effort, but once it was made, making large amounts of idlis was simply a matter of spooning the batter into pans and steaming them. This was easily mechanised. 1964, an appliance manufacturer for large kitchens named Kleertone was advertising a 136 litre boiling pan with “extra utensil for preparing idlis”.

Commercial wet grinders for the batter seem to have come out around the same time, possibly from Coimbatore, which was a hub for small manufacturing. By 1981 VG Panneerdas was advertising a home version in the Times of India (ToI), but even before that enterprising south Indian women like Mrs Gomathy Murthy from Matunga had figured there was a market for the batter made in fullsize wet grinders they had got from Tamil Nadu.

The really enabling technology here was the pressure cooker. It had been introduced to cook rice and dal, but in the 1960s manufacturers realised that with the weight removed they made for excellent idli steamers. In 1967, Prestige advertised the Preett Steam-It stacked idli pans: “Does away with messy cloth or banana leaf.” With batter bought from outside, or even made fairly adequately in heavy-duty Indian mixer-grinders, home idli-making was now easy.

There are machines used in institutions, and periodically a new device is touted that promises to make perfect chapattis, but they never quite manage it. If anything, their product tends to reinforce prejudices against machine-made chapattis. In their very simplicity, chapattis are peculiarly hard to make right- or what people perceive as right.

Nice bit…

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